November 23, 2010

Review – Donkey Kong Country Returns

Filed under: Reviews — Tags: , , , , , , , , — Jamie Love @ 1:56 pm

Donkey Kong Country Returns
Marathon playtime with a casual audience caused one observer to remark that I was more boy than man despite my age, which possibly owed in some small part to the fact that I’d begun banging my chest after surviving a particularly hellish level.

Two straight days in the jungle have created a time machine, the latest cog in Nintendo’s flux capacitor bringing players back to the age of Super Nintendo, taking advantage of an evolved 2D palette and a long absence that brings characters back with a vibrancy I fantasized about while playing the original titles so many years ago.

Perhaps the key is that the visual seduction inspires the same level of awe now as it did then, so that even if everything new is old again, it’s hard to complain about the result.

Donkey Kong Country Returns
Donkey Kong treks across an island home littered with enemies and bursting with life on the quest to reclaim his stolen bananas. The hypnotized critters standing between Kong and his goal are a part of that eco-system, but Retro has also created a layered backdrop that gushes with organic trappings, which while serving as background set pieces, still sway and breathe to invite player investment.

Pounding Kong’s furious fists against the ground shakes the earth, causing plants and bones and whatever else litters the jungle floor to shift with the action. The studio that put us behind Samus’ visor to experience the universe of Metroid as if we were truly there has herein created a 2D world filled with the chaos of life in motion, of the cause and effect unleashed when a giant gorilla marches to war.

The priority of 2D longing puts the emphasis on quickly tearing through all the stages Kong has to offer, discovering levels that play to a familiar beat, remixed by hands skilled enough to legitimately make the old seem new and never deprive the game of its ability to surprise.

Donkey Kong Country Returns
One stage found me waking a cave filled with fruit bats that summoned a swarming storm chasing me through the rest of the stage. Another saw waves at the beach taking out everything on the screen, forcing Kong to rush between shelter points. At other points Kong grips patches of grass to ride swinging chunks of earth teetering over chasms.

The road forward is never laid at the neglect of the environment flowing underneath the immediate action, rather there’s a continual marriage where the two layers play off one another, taking turns at offering the emphasis that keeps Kong moving. Players can stop to smell the roses and explore every nook and cranny, but continually swirling events place the emphasis for fun on keeping Kong in perpetual motion and feeling like an old school God for surviving.

Kong’s world is crammed with secrets and eccentricities that make every stage both an endurance run and a place of exploration. Puzzle pieces, bonuses, and special KONG letters wait to be devoured.

Donkey Kong Country Returns
I’d like to suggest that the rumors of Donkey Kong’s difficulty have been greatly exaggerated, but such things will vary with players. There are continual situations that encourage chucking the WiiMote at the television – I’ve lost so many Kong’s while compiling this review that the species must certainly border on extinction. And yet, it’s worth stressing that the game doesn’t hit players with “cheap” difficulty.

Obstacles are carefully placed to demand a certain level of precision, but leave just enough room for error so that the game doesn’t leave me feeling cheated even after I lose so many lives that the game’s guide kicks on and offers to let Super Kong show me how it’s done. There is nothing to be shown, no real secret to prevailing. This is that old style of difficulty, where you can see what you need to do – it’s just a matter of getting your fingers to co-operate. Keeping Diddy on hand becomes essential as he rides atop Donkey Kong to provide two extra hit point hearts as well as a jetpack that offers additional space for recovering from miscalculated leaps.

That said, levels that take Donkey Kong on a ride with rocket barrel flights or railcar trips threaten to break the Zen of the most hardened Monks even with a precious few level aiding bonuses. Maybe a few rides on Rambi the Rhino will help blow off some steam as players get a few opportunities to bash through levels.

Donkey Kong Country Returns
Keeping perspective on the old school, there are no obligatory motion controls hamstringing the play of the game. There are two control settings available, either turning the WiiMote sideways ala Kirby’s Epic Yarn, or using the NunChuk and WiiMote together, but still as a straightforward controller affair that doesn’t require motion pointing.

With either setup, shaking the devices will cause Donkey Kong to pound the ground, and button additions with the shaking will cause Kong to blow on objects like lights and flowers, or power-charge through enemies. It’s a clever grab for realism in the physicality of that action, imparting some sense of Kong’s brute force on the player and encouraging that we all go a little ape while playing. I largely stuck out the game with the sideways controls, but there were a few times where the NunChuk option seemed to make the shaking easier to perform and maintain.

The sideways control setup seems to suit the boss fights better however. Such confrontations largely present the age old challenge of hopping on enemies at the right time, and yet also stretch at a precious few points into near environmental battles that require Kong to use every trick at his disposal to move quickly and strike with precision.

The game also offers a two player option, which lets a friend tag along as Diddy – tag being an important word given the nature of the levels, which don’t invite a truly co-operative experience given the emphasis on keeping in motion. One player seems destined to always get ahead of the other, and while the game would launch Diddy ahead to where Kong had gotten, and allow him to ride on Kong’s back and fire projectiles, it’s clear that this is a game better devoured one person at a time.

Donkey Kong Country Returns
Retro has truly channeled the spirit of Rare, creating a game that encompasses everything memorable about the original series, with levels that play out like carefully placed rows of dominoes, and visuals every bit as detailed. The art style offers up the lush jungle paradise of the Kong’s with color bursting from every inch of the screen. There are also subtle touches, a few stages where Kong and Diddy are silhouettes beneath a setting sun or within the bowels of a darkened factory, the only splash of color the red of their trademarked bits of clothing – a bit of arthouse flavoring that even extends to loading screens.

This channeling has created a spot on revisit of the series, a defining summation of life in Kong’s Country. Platforming titles often have a hypnotic effect on me, where my brain goes on auto-pilot as I start tackling levels like a chore list. But the ideas at work within these stages manage to slap me awake and keep me engaged – I know I’m having fun again, which seems entirely the point. And yet, it’s hard ignoring the fact that Retro, so capable of expanding the horizons of classic Nintendo franchises beyond perceived boundaries, has primarily written a love letter here, rather than finding the space and freedom to leave their unmistakable mark.

It really is hard to complain about the result, which achieves so much more than other titles looking for quick results off of grain fed nostalgia – a better throwback to the golden age of platforming will likely be a long time coming. But it’s equally hard to ignore that revisiting the past still leaves us all looking to the future when the ride is over.

Retro Studios


Nintendo Wii

Singleplayer, Co-op

Release Date
November 21, 2010

*A copy of this title was purchased by Gamesugar for review

1 Comment »

  1. Ever since Nintendo announced this at E3 the game has been on my “to buy” list and I’ll be buying it in a week or so along with many, many other DS, Wii and PS3 games.

    Comment by EdEN — November 23, 2010 @ 9:50 pm

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